Computer bytes man

It sounds like something out of a silly science-fiction movie: human infected with computer virus. But that is exactly what a British academic managed to do earlier this week.

Ok, so it wasn’t “him” that was infected so much as the computer chip he had implanted into his hand. And he intentionally infected it himself, writing a virus especially for the purpose, so there wasn’t any nefarious drama.

You have to admit though, “Scientist implants uncomfortable chip into hand and then intentionally infects it with custom computer virus after several tries” doesn’t make for a very good headline.

So is this all just another PR stunt by Reading University? Yes and no. There’s no doubt that Reading’s eccentric computer science department has been grabbing attention with this bionic man shtick for more than a decade.

But despite the showmanship, it is also exploring some intriguing ideas — ideas that more prestigious universities seem unwilling to entertain or, if they are doing so, to make public.

The researcher in question, Dr Mark Gasson, raises some thorny points about the future of medical implants like pacemakers and cochlear implants. As these devices become both more sophisticated and more connected — just as our cellphones have done over the last decade — they could become targets for computer viruses.

Indeed if, as Kevin Kelly surmises, we are headed for an “internet of things”, where every person and device is connected at all times to the net, then this kooky experiment suddenly seems very serious.

New kind of terrorist
Today if a hacker crashes someone’s hard drive or shuts down a bank’s systems, at least there’s no physical harm done. But imagine if you could simultaneously shut down millions of infected medical implants?

Or imagine a new kind of terrorist, implanted with a fake heart regulator, who visits America’s Federal Reserve or the Bank of England, carrying a deadly computer virus inside his or her chest?

Computer viruses are simply pieces of software designed to evade detection, replicate and (usually) cause harm or disruption. If everything, including us, has software and is also connected to everything else, these doomsday scenarios may cease to be science fiction.

But as with any sweeping technological change, we are prone to focus only on the worst aspects. When the steam train was invented, scientists warned that people would be unable to breathe at speeds more than 50km/h, and the idea of a credit card would have horrified both buyers and sellers less than a century ago.

The “internet of things” may be scary but it could mean huge leaps forward in safety, comfort and convenience. Imagine never losing anything ever again — just google your keys and you’ve found them.

In fact forget keys, credit cards, access chips, banking passwords and PINs — just wave your hand at the friendly sensor. And who needs an allergy-warning bracelet when you carry your whole medical history everywhere with you?

Yes, connecting everything together may make us vulnerable to computer viruses. But living together in vast cities makes us vulnerable to real viruses — and we’ve managed to deal with that problem fairly well in the last three centuries or so. The best antidote to technological progress is good sense and better precautions — not less progress.

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